September 20, 2019

If you had to pick one book that's been indispensable to you as a founder, what would it be?

Channing Allen @channingallen

If you're a founder (or a former founder):

  1. What's the one book that's been indispensable to you as a founder?
  2. What are some details or anecdotes about how the book has impacted your work?
  1. 16

    This is on odd one but I've found 'Hemingway On Writing'—an edited collection of excerpts and letters by Ernest Hemingway on doing the work of writing—to be tremendously helpful. Writing a novel and generally being a professional writer seems to have a ton in common with building a great software product/company and being a bootstrapper in general.

    My favorite tip is to stop each day when you're going good. Writing a novel and building a business is about maintaining momentum over weeks, months, and years. One way to keep that motivation loop going strong is to find a point when you know exactly what you're going to do next, then stop for the day, get as far away from the work as you can (read, go outside, eat dinner with friends) and then pick up the next day right on that thing. This way you never start your day with "what the heck do I do now?"... you always have one high value thing to kick off the day with.

    I learned a ton from the book and collected more of my favorites here:

    PS - yes, this is why Hemingway is our Twitter avatar :)

    1. 1

      Nice one. I will try to apply this for the foreseeable future. Every day before closing the day, I will write down the one task I can start working on the next morning.

      Thank you!

    2. 1

      This is an excellent hack :D Thanks for sharing

    3. 1

      This is..this is everything I need right now! Every single motivation for writing in the next week will be from this, thank you so much!

  2. 10

    Hooked by Nir Eyal has been the most indispensable for me. Lots of books have excellent general advice for founders, but Hooked provided me with knowledge that's specifically been useful for building Indie Hackers.

    The core of the book is a model for building products that people are willing to invest in and return to. It's based on lots of psychological research around novelty, habit formation, and human relationships. I think it's need-to-know information for anyone working on a B2C product, especially a social one.

    Crucially, I used it to tweak the mechanics of the IH forum early on to make it a place worth checking out often, even when there were very few posts. I'm also returning to it today, to help design features that make it worthwhile for founders to continually share their experiences and post about their learnings.

    1. 1

      I can only agree, Hooked has been instrumental in us understanding the opportunities within our own product to increase value generation for our customers.

      I would recommend this book to any founder, technical or not, to understand how product usage works and what the levers are to make it better for your customer and thus better for your business.

    2. 1

      Thanks for sharing!
      Nir's new book - Indistractable too is amazing. It presents scenarios to think about where users are becoming more and more aware of products & their adverse impact. Has been of help building Remote Tools.
      Have you had a chance to look at it?

      1. 2

        Yep, I had him on the podcast to talk about it a few weeks ago! Great book.

        1. 1

          Awesome! Would definitely have a listen. Should definitely have interesting insights as Nir too functions as an indie hacker in the sense that he has put in a lot of effort marketing the book and on channels that his audience would be present on. He has sent personalized replies to entrepreneurs I know over LinkedIn.

    3. 1

      Just bought Hooked, the Kindle version. Look forward to reading it!

    4. 1

      The site certainly has become much more addictive than when I first found it.

      Hopefully the increased usage is helping everyone!

  3. 8

    "How to Win Friends and Influence People" by Dale Carnegie. A lot of books come and go for me but this is the one that has a permanent spot on my shelf at all times. As someone who has to spend a lot of time communicating, it's been a crucial resource.

    It's caused me to think a lot about potential responses to what I say, and has helped me anticipate responses to statements so I can craft something that works for my audience. I use it a lot when making asks (for instance, in TinySeed I do a LOT of emailing asking mentors for help with our founders — I need to ask for help confidently, but also be deferential to our mentors and their schedules) and I wouldn't be as effective if I hadn't read this book first.

  4. 7

    The book I find myself recommending the most often to Indie Hackers is Traction, by Gabriel Weinberg. It's a great high-level take on different strategies for getting traction for your product, framed in a concise, clear, and actionable way. I found it particularly helpful because it provides a framework you can actually execute and follow yourself instead of just discussing ideas.

    The biggest thing I took away from Traction was that founders should to try and split their time evenly between building a product and marketing it. For many developers and Indie Hackers this balance gets very skewed towards the building side, which is where most of us are more comfortable. But, by trying to achieve 50/50 split I ended up investing much more thought and energy into promoting my projects, which ultimately that led to far more success than I would have achieved if I'd followed my instincts and focused only on building. Now I always categorize my time spent on projects into these two time buckets and course-correct when I find I've spent too much time of building.

    Honorable mentions:

    • The War of Art by Steven Pressfield is a great kick in the ass to get motivated and is the book that inspired me to start my Indie Hacking journey.
    • The Mom Test by Rob Fitzpatrick is great for the idea validation stage.
    1. 2

      Three great books. I was also going to recommend Traction but let me second your suggestion instead.

  5. 7
    1. Creativity Inc.
    2. The best piece of advice from Ed Catmull, the cofounder of Pixar is that when you're successful it's easy to think you know what contributed to that success. In reality, there are way too many factors to know which ones actually mattered. To make a great movie, they have to start from scratch every time. Every movie starts terrible, then they make it great over time through constant improvement!
    1. 1

      I also read this one and found it more interesting than most similar books.

  6. 6

    The War of Art by Steven Pressfield

    In the early days of Baremetrics I found myself almost self-sabotaging the success it was having. I'd procrastinate the hard things, ignore the obvious moves and focus on things that didn't matter.

    The book talks a lot about overcoming the ways in which we inadvertently and subconsciously work against our own strengths and successes to really figure out how to work on what matters not just to the success of the project but to you as an individual.

    Procrastination is the most common manifestation of Resistance because it’s the easiest to rationalize. We don’t tell ourselves, “I’m never going to write my symphony.” Instead we say, “I am going to write my symphony; I’m just going to start tomorrow.”

    The best time to start on an idea is right now.

    Any support we get from persons of flesh and blood is like Monopoly money; it’s not legal tender in that sphere where we have to do our work. In fact, the more energy we spend stoking up on support from colleagues and loved ones, the weaker we become and the less capable of handling our business.

    This one is a thought one for me. I want external validation so much and have built an entire company around being "open" with everything. It can be incredibly distracting from meaningful work.

    Someone once asked Somerset Maugham if he wrote on a schedule or only when struck by inspiration. “I write only when inspiration strikes,” he replied. “Fortunately it strikes every morning at nine o’clock sharp.”

    Show up. Do the work. Some days (many? most?) you won't want to. But if you stick with it, the needle will move.

  7. 6

    I think one of the most underrated business books is Give and Take, by Adam Grant.

    The book paints a picture of three types of individuals: givers, takers, and matchers.

    1. As their names indicate, takers visualize life as a zero-sum game and prioritize getting more value out of exchanges, compared to what they invest. Their ability to interact and work with others is hindered by this approach to life.

    2. On the other spectrum, givers see the world differently and believe in mutually beneficial situations. They are happy to give without the intention of receiving something back.

    3. Finally, matchers fall somewhere in between, with the key differentiator being that they expect reciprocity and operate in a domain of “fairness”.

    What's especially interesting is that Grant found that the most successful leaders are givers, across every industry that he studied. He went on to explain that there are two types of givers: "selfless" and "otherish". He found that "otherish" givers, who were able to set up the right boundaries and keep their own interests in sight, were able to find the most success in life.

    I've continuously seen people throughout my career operate from a place of taking or matching. Whether it's as simple as not wanting to share ideas openly or perhaps more aggressively trying to destroy competitors, I've only seen these negative behaviours hinder them in the end. It's extremely freeing to recognize that in order for you to be successful, you don't need to take an opportunity away from someone else. There's room at "the top".

    That's why I've chosen to model my projects and approach to entrepreneurship as an open book, hoping to help as many others along the way. Before reading this book, I operated in the same way, but it helped me further appreciate other givers in my life and put some research behind my approach to entrepreneurship. It also encourages me to think more long-term, instead of focusing on the immediate future.

    "Being a giver is not good for a 100-yard dash, but it’s valuable in a marathon"

    For additional book suggestions, I've compiled my favourite here.

  8. 5

    I read Four Steps to the Ephiphany right out of college and it completely changed how I thought about entrepreneurship. I grew up in a conservative town without a ton of exposure to entrepreneurs. So to me the idea of starting a business seemed like an act of wizardry.

    Four Steps gave me a framework for thinking about validating ideas and how to work your way to an idea that could be the foundation of a business. It gave me a lot of confidence to try and give the entrepreneurship thing a try.

  9. 4

    Surprised this one hasn't been said yet, but Antifragile by Nassim Taleb (My notes:

    It's been useful for forcing me to think about where there might be fragilities in my business. One of the big keys to success, especially in a bootsrapped company, is just not dying, and one of the main ways you die is through unforeseen weaknesses that take you by surprise.

    I try to re-read it every year or so, since I usually find something new and relevant to whatever problems I'm grappling with at the time.

  10. 4

    Scaling Up by Verne Harnish (formerly called The Rockerfeller Habits)

    When I discovered this book I was amazed and grateful that someone had actually written a textbook for how to run a business!

    Scaling Up is extremely practical. The book lays out how often to meet, what your meetings should be about, how to structure your team, how to craft your goals, etc.

    After being a business owner for more than ten years I've seen that nothing is one-size-fits-all, and we certainly don't feel like we have to follow every detail of the book. But it's one of those great basics that I can always count on. When I'm feeling lost on how to achieve something ,Scaling Up contains the fundamentals I return to on how to make a business work.

  11. 4

    Although I didn't read it until after I had launched my first product, Authority by Nathan Barry is the book I'm always recommending to people who want to write a book or launch a course.

    I studied Nathan's work meticulously by reading all of his blog posts, listening to all of his podcast episodes, then listening to more interviews and watching talks from other creators I learned about through his work and I can say with confidence that there is basically no way I'd be a full-time creator right now without the things I learned from those resources. I've now earned over $2 million selling my own products and have all the time and freedom I could ask for to explore new ideas and start building whatever is going to come next.

    Authority is basically all of that knowledge packaged up in one comprehensive read, and absolutely worth checking out if you want to build an audience and release your first product.

  12. 4

    It is hard to pick just one, but the book "How to Get Rich" by Felix Dennis helped me to get rich :). I read the book years ago when it was first published, and then I started rereading it again. He's completely wrong with some things in retrospect (e.g. he thought Steve Jobs would ruin Apple).

    But one takeaway that stuck with me from the first time I read it was how much he stresses holding onto equity. I didn't realize how important it is to make it a goal to never give any equity away. It really helped me - I remained a solo founder for a while because of this advice. It made me work harder, I think, because I knew the company was mine and I was 100% responsible for it.

  13. 3

    Many of Seth Godin's books inspired me to get into community and marketing in the early days, I found them all captivating at the time (15 years ago now). Before that I felt like a lost little soul :)

    When I was struggling with how to take Ministry of Testing forward (about 4 years ago), Derek Sivers recommended E-Myth Revisited by Michael E. Gerber. It struck a chord with me at the time as I was trying to figure out what to do next and how to grow my business without it relying on me. The book focuses in on ideas around franchises, not that you have to franchise, but was more a way of saying get processes and people in place so that the machine can work itself.

    From that day on every time I was doing something I had the idea in my head about how would it work without me. What things should I be doing? Who should I be looking out for to help me? What processes should I log? If someone else will be helping me in the future, am I charging enough to be able to afford it?

    It's funny looking back, as I've now more or less managed to free myself from the day to day and the ideas behind The E-myth definitely influenced my direction, even if it was just the constant thoughts in my head.

  14. 3

    "The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People"

    It's a classic for a reason.

    It basically starts with "you are the author of your life" and, once you believe that, then tells you how to write the best damn life possible.

    If you're a founder you probably already believe that premise, but it's a good reminder that the point of life isn't where you end up, or where you start, but what you do with whatever cards you're given.

    The critical message for founders is that you should only think about and work on your "circle of influence", i.e. what you can actually change.

    Founders constantly run in to shit they can't control. By fanatically focusing on what you can control, you'll dramatically improve your odds of succeeding, and IMO live a much happier life overall.

  15. 3

    Reboot by Jerry Colonna.

    To be good leaders, we have to unpack and understand ourselves better. Much of work is relationships, so learning and knowing how to navigate those ultimately help us do better work.

    Jerry is the real deal. Part pragmatic, part Eastern Philosophy, the book is a nice mix of stories and clear actions to work on in your life.

    "Work does not have to destroy us. Jerry firmly believes work can be the way to achieve our fullest selves. What we need, sometimes, is a chance to reset our goals and to reconnect with our deepest selves and with one another. Reboot moves and empowers us to begin this journey."

  16. 3

    I know this is an obvious one, but I found 4-Hour Work Week by Timothy Ferriss‎ indispensable for several reasons.

    While I absolutely do not work 4 hours per week - and I have heard that Tim Ferriss hasn't achieve this either - I constantly keep the principles from the book in the back of my mind.

    For example, the book taught me that it's important to choose a business model that is scalable and fits your desired lifestyle. That's one reason why at Barn2, we made the switch from designing websites (i.e. providing services) to selling WordPress plugins (i.e. selling products, which is much more repeatable and scalable). We realised that the work we were doing would never meet our goals.

    Another good tip is that you can build an effective team without having to follow the traditional business model of getting premises and hiring in-house staff. When I first read the 4-Hour Work Week, I was sceptical that you could get a good PA in a non-native English speaking country, but his experiences helped to convince me to give it a try. I now have a team of fantastic remote colleagues around the world, including three in the Philippines.

    The main flaw in the concept of the 4-Hour Work Week is that if you love what you do, then that shouldn't be your goal. I don't like the negativity in the attitude that you should want to minimise your work - to me, that suggests that you're doing the wrong thing! However, I have taken the practical tips from the book to achieve a good balance between finding work that I enjoy and actually want to spend more than 4 hours a week doing; and working in a more scalable, productive way that will allow my business to grow and see new levels of success.

  17. 3

    Founders at Work - Interviews of startup founders of famous companies by Jessica Livingston, founder of YC. It dives into their early years like Indie Hackers, but these are companies of the '70s-'80s-'90s.

    My favorite story from the book is when Yahoo ran their web servers out of their third-floor apartment. One day they lost power so they set up a generator on the street that someone had to crank manually (if I recall correctly). Then people would run up and ask something like, "How many queries per crank?".

    It has interviews with these founders:

    Max Levchin - PayPal
    Sabeer Bhatia - Hotmail
    Steve Wozniak - Apple Computer
    Joe Kraus - Excite
    Dan Bricklin - Software Arts
    Mitch Kapor - Lotus
    Ray Ozzie - Iris Associates, Groove Networks
    Evan Williams - Pyra Labs (
    Tim Brady - Yahoo
    Mike Lazaridis - Research in Motion
    Arthur van Hoff - Marimba
    Paul Buchheit - Gmail
    Steve Perlman - WebTV
    Mike Ramsay - TiVo
    Paul Graham - Viaweb
    Joshua Schachter -
    Mark Fletcher - ONElist, Bloglines
    Craig Newmark - craigslist
    Caterina Fake - Flickr
    Brewster Kahle - WAIS, Internet Archive, Alexa Internet
    Charles Geschke - Adobe
    Ann Winblad - Open Systems, Hummer Winblad
    David Heinemeier Hansson - 37signals
    Philip Greenspun - ArsDigita
    Joel Spolsky - Fog Creek Software
    Steve Kaufer - TripAdvisor
    James Hong - HOT or NOT
    James Currier - Tickle
    Blake Ross - Creator of Firefox
    Mena Trott - Six Apart
    Bob Davis - Lycos
    Ron Gruner - Alliant Computer,

  18. 3

    Zero to One by Peter Thiel

  19. 3

    the hard thing about hard things 💯

    1. 1

      This would have been my second choice

      1. 1

        Funny, Zero to One by Peter Thiel is my #2

        I feel I could relate and connect more w/ Ben

  20. 2

    Traction: How any startup can achieve rapid customer growth
    By Gabriel Weinberg and Justin Mares

    The single biggest reason that startups fail is that they don't acquire customers fast enough. The book Traction by Gabriel Weinberg and Justin Mares explores how to overcome that problem and lays out more than a dozen different channels that startups can use to attract and acquire customers. Obviously, execution is key. But working from a blank slate is really hard. This book gives you ideas of where to start and provides practical advice to take your first steps in testing each channel to see what will work best for you... and what won't.

  21. 2

    As a bootstrapped company that was constrained in cash, especially during our early stages, Ryan Holiday's Growth Hacker Marketing was helpful in helping us be scrappy while gaining traction.

    Here's some memorable lines I've wrote down:

    Forget the conventional wisdom that says if a company lacks growth, it should invest more in sales and marketing. Instead, it should invest in refining and improving the service itself until users are so happy that they can’t stop using the service (and their friends come along with them).

    So many venture backed startups dump money into PR & marketing to essentially force their growth, but this quote was validation that organic growth through amazing service/product is more sustainable and rewarding. Referrals & loyalty marketing continues to be the biggest source of growth for us, as we focus on offering best-in-class customer experience and refining the quality of our products. We now have 1200+ active monthly paid subscribers, and quite a lot of them have been convinced to try us out from friends & family.

    The thing about marketers—and, well, everyone—is that we’re wrong all the time. We think we make good gut decisions, but we don’t. The old model makes being wrong incredibly expensive. Who can afford to learn that the product isn’t resonating after they’ve spent months planning a campaign? Growth hacking doesn’t make our instincts any better, but it fundamentally reduces the costs of being wrong, giving us freedom to experiment and try new things.

    Over the first year of our company, I've often made the mistake of going "all-in" on a single campaign, thinking this campaign was going to be the campaign that helped us take off. Silly me. Time and experience have proven nothing is a guarantee, and that taking iterative & incremental approaches in all our tactics is the smarter way to go.

    Note: I'd also encourage checking out other Ryan Holiday books, such as "The Obstacle is the Way", "Perennial Seller", and "Ego is the Enemy".

  22. 2

    Comics about Garfield.

  23. 2

    I think the ones that really influenced are At The Existentialist Cafe, Bullshit Jobs: A Theory, and Enlightenment Now! Really made me question why we do any of what we're doing and led me towards my research on the relationship between personal life fulfillment and meaningful contribution to the world

  24. 2

    My Inventions by Nikola Tesla.

    Was hard to believe the man who invented modern electricity, discovered x-rays and designed the Niagara Falls dam died penniless.

    Indirectly taught me having a large impact doesn't guarantee you will get compensated.

    To keep making things, you need cash. If for nothing else, to pay your bills.

    Figure out how to make money from your inventions, so you can keep inventing.

  25. 2

    Great book by founders of Basecamp

    1. 2

      This book is one of my favorites too!

  26. 2

    Economics in One Lesson by Henry Haslitt

    The long and short of it is that when economic policy is created to aid a particular group, the long term effects on all groups must be considered. Many times if you do not consider the effects on all groups, it can come back to bite the original group it was intended to help! This simple idea is one that must be adopted in all areas of life and business.

    As a leader you must have a systems view and understand how decisions inside your organization effect the focus team/group but ALSO how that decision will have other ripple effects into all other teams and groups.

    Nearly ten years ago, this book opened my 23 year old eyes to some harsh but vitally important truths about the world and set me on the path I am today.

  27. 2

    "Inspired: How to Create Tech Products Customers"
    by Marty Cagan

    1. 1

      Have been diving into this one recently. Very straightforward and point-like structure with interesting insights. Maybe you might like this talk of him as well. Definitely some overlap but nevertheless very insightful:

  28. 1

    I have been reading a few but "Predictable Revenue" is my favorite for now since I am in growth mode (being bootstrapped) and that is hard. This book has given me a lot of steps on how to start building the right sales engine for growth.

  29. 1

    The old man and the sea

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